ISIS Is Not al-Qaeda: We Need a Different Strategy

Author Nicole A. Softness argues that ISIS is primarily, and potentially exclusively, prioritizing its territorial claims. She argues that this warrants a new strategy from the US-led counterterrorism alliance: one that treats ISIS like a violent revolutionary movement (more akin to the French and Communist Revolutions), and as a potentially legitimate state, rather than a scattered and decentralized ideological network.

Iraqi federal police stand in formation in West Mosul, Iraq, March 2, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Hull)*

Nicole A. Softness

Throughout its surge in popularity, the Islamic State (henceforth referred to as ISIS) has been called many things. The United States State Department, as well as the United Nations, has designated the group to be a “terrorist organization.”[1] The Council on Foreign Relations calls it a militant movement,[2] and the media has labeled it as the jihadi group so “extreme” that it was disavowed by al-Qaeda.[3]

More recent analysts worry that ISIS will soon acquire a new designation: legitimate. One could argue that ISIS’s prioritization of geographic ownership and administrative governance in regions of Iraq and Syria, as opposed to coordinated global terror attacks, supports their highest end goal of a self-maintained Caliphate.[4]

Using both a historical and strategic lens, I argue that ISIS is primarily, and potentially exclusively, prioritizing its territorial claims. This warrants a new strategy from the US-led counterterrorism alliance: one that treats ISIS like a violent revolutionary movement (more akin to the French and Communist Revolutions), and as a potentially legitimate state, rather than a scattered and decentralized ideological network.


Before positing that ISIS requires a unique foreign policy strategy, it’s important to establish the differences between ISIS and other terrorist networks, like al-Qaeda. Originating as a jihadist cohort under the banner of al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) renamed itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2013 to fully reflect its self-proclaimed global orientation. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who led this transition, hoped that this renaming would reflect ISIS’s desire to expand its scope beyond local Iraqi issues. In February 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri (Bin Laden’s replacement as the leader of al-Qaeda) publicly disavowed Baghdadi’s new group, signifying the official splintering of the two organizations.[5]

Following this divorce, Baghdadi’s group dedicated significant resources towards territorial acquisition across Iraq and Syria, capturing major cities like Mosul and Tikrit, and important resources like hydroelectric dams, oil refineries, and key border crossings. In July 2014, ISIS officially declared that all land in their possession constituted a religious caliphate, led by the newly crowned Caliph, Baghdadi.

Differences between ISIS and al-Qaeda have continued as recently as 2015. While al-Qaeda has continued to target iconic US cultural and financial landmarks with the goal of removing US forces from the Middle East, ISIS has refocused much of its attention towards direct attacks on the apostate regimes in Syria and Iraq that are led by Bashar al-Assad and Haider al-Abadi. Lawrence Wright, author of The Looming Tower, says that al-Qaeda views the establishment of a Caliphate and ISIS’s goals as a pipe dream.[6]

What are ISIS’s Goals?

Daniel Byman summarizes ISIS’s strategy as “control, consolidation, and expansion” under an ultimate goal of territorial control.[7] Thus, any acts of global terrorism should be viewed as tools towards achieving this end, and not as an end itself. Any terrorism performed within these previously apostate communities is meant to purify the community and to convince the population to submit to ISIS’s laws of governance. In this sense, ISIS possesses similar goals as a new, struggling state, while al-Qaeda continues to act within the parameters of a terror network.

ISIS’s actions further validate these goals. While al-Qaeda has used passages from Islamic texts to authenticate and call for attacks against Western infidels, ISIS has chosen to prioritize language that supports its claim of a Caliphate.[8] Not coincidentally, the land ISIS seeks to conquer mirrors the Umayyad Caliphate, an ancient swath of land that spreads from India to the Iberian Peninsula.[9] It is likely ISIS is specifically looking to reclaim the land of this particular Caliphate.

This historic context has granted ISIS a popular narrative – one focused on loss. The idea that the West has stolen this ancient land allows ISIS to place itself within the story of the Umayyad Caliphate (which also suffered territorial losses), and to highlight its further similarities to this ancient, revered society. Both territorial expansion and loss lend credence to ISIS’s legitimacy narrative, which makes it difficult to enact a counter campaign.[10]

According to CSIS scholar Jon B. Alterman, ISIS is truly a “wholly modern movement that seeks to be ancient.”[11] The declaration of Baghdadi as the “Caliph of all Muslims”[12] and these efforts to place itself in the Umayyad narrative support ISIS’s argument that it possesses more religious legitimacy than other terrorist competitors, such as al-Qaeda.

Even at the height of their power, none of the other Islamic extremist groups have claimed to be heirs or caliphates. This is a significant break in etiquette. The more central Baghdadi becomes to his organization, the larger the consequences would be if he were to be killed, which could further radicalize populations who already dislike Western intervention.

The more well-known and powerful Baghdadi becomes, the more he becomes a legitimate political and international player and the larger the consequences will be if he disappears.[13]

Notably, Baghdadi did not proclaim ISIS’s caliphate until he possessed control over a significant amount of land, as had Abu Bakr, the first legitimate Caliph in history.[14] At the same time, Baghdadi did claim the title of “Commander of the Faithful” as early as 2010.[15] It’s important to note that the terms “Caliphate’” and “Caliph” were chosen only once they had sufficient (and, perhaps, unprecedented) legitimacy.

Territorial Acquisition

 ISIS’s prioritization of territory is important and should not be reduced to a side effect of its organizational efforts. James Scott’s Seeing Like a State highlights the authoritative power that accompanies even the most menial of state administration; sedentarization, he says, “is a state’s attempt to make a society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription, and prevention of rebellion.”[16] Within this argument, even ISIS’s most menial administrative orders (like tax collection) should be acknowledged as strategic initiatives and responded to with counterinsurgency approaches, rather than counterterrorism ones, as the public and the majority of the government has been apt to do. Responding to counterinsurgencies with bombs, obviously, will not work, and would only serve to further radicalize supporters and potentially radicalize geographically adjacent populations.[17]

James Scott highlights several of these strategic administrative enterprises, including the “ordering … of society,” a “high-modernist ideology,” the willingness to use coercive power, and a “prostrate civil society that lacks the capacity to resist these plans.”[18] ISIS possesses these advantages, and has pursued those that it does not, through the mandatory taxation of those living under its purview.

As recently as December 2015, however, ISIS was reportedly collecting only $1 billion annually from these administrative origins. Comparatively, countries of similar geographic sizes and population (i.e., Belgium) collect more than $16 billion annually.[19] Further, ISIS faces additional struggles stemming from organizational and military roadblocks. Still, the group maintains an unwavering focus on long-term governance.

Some argue that the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels demonstrate otherwise. I disagree, as does Byman, who says that Paris doesn’t truly fit into the ISIS pattern, and shouldn’t concern or inform changes in US foreign policy.[20] He adds that ISIS may not be willing to accept the risks that accompany sustained and public global terrorism.[21] A decision to prioritize internal administration over terrorism abroad fits within the historical narrative of the Umayyad Caliphate – ISIS’s rhetorical exemplar – which did not define itself by the destruction of infidels, but rather on the successful governance of its inhabitants.

Others argue that ISIS’s territorial focus is purely coincidental – that they only acquired land in Iraq and Syria because the political and military chaos allowed for unique opportunities. Accordingly, Michael Nayebi-Oskoui, a Middle East analyst at Stratfor, asserts that “‘There’s nothing about ISIS that makes them uniquely suited to endure as an informal state.’”[22]

These arguments, however, ignore ISIS’s carefully crafted religious narrative, and its use of the Umayyad texts as a means for recruitment and the continued adherence of its people. While ISIS’s entrance into Syria and Iraq was certainly based on good timing, timing does not replace planning. The opportunities happened to fit within ISIS’s goals, and it was lucky that ISIS possessed a cohort of former Baathist officials who could run a police state, and that it faced a corrupt and unreliable Iraqi army.[23]

Further, political scientist Colin Jackson argues that the immediate implantation of administrative structures is usually not an end goal, but rather a “bridge between counter-guerilla operations and the return of civilian government.”[24] According to this argument, ISIS does not simply want to administer territory, and any controversial and violent practices should be viewed as a precursor towards future governance goals. To caveat, it is interesting that ISIS has not prioritized winning the hearts and minds of its constituents, as other counterinsurgency forces have done (i.e., US efforts in Afghanistan in the 2000s). Although it offers financial and infrastructural benefits for committed participation within its Caliphate, this strategic gap further supports my theory that ISIS’s modus operandi does not fit within the established patterns of counterinsurgency the US employs.

What Has the US Tried to Do?

 In 2013, Defense Secretary Ash Carter sent special operations forces to Iraq to defeat ISIS, which was still called AQI at the time. In May, these troops killed Abu Sayyah, the leader in charge of oil and gas sales. Due to the troop’s “sensitive site exploitation,” and extremely rapid processing by intelligence analysts, the forces were able to conduct up to seventeen raids per night, resulting in short-term, tangible effects.[25] At the time, this strategy seemed effective.

In 2014, the US pursued two additional strategies. The first directly targeted the leaders, couriers, and facilitators who were in charge of crucial operative networks, including the distribution of ammunition, fuel, and fighters. The second strategy came from a more traditional counterinsurgency (COIN) origin, which aimed to support indigenous forces capable of holding and administering their own territory in Iraq and Syria.

The problem? All of these strategies treat ISIS like a terror network – at the most, like a fledgling insurgent group.[26] ISIS’s legitimacy comes from its appeal to a religious-historical context of an ascendant umma (its role in the Umayyad story) and from its established territorial governance. COIN will not work. ISIS has established that it can minimally function as a state – it has territorial control and interacts with neighboring states. Targeted assassinations will not work, especially if victims spin their deaths within a narrative of loss or victimization from the West.

Although the US tried a new approach in 2016, and deployed Marines to train Iraqi fighters to dismantle the ISIS network, this again ignored ISIS’s prioritization of the Caliphate over terror attacks.[27] Of course, the US could apply COIN tactics to criticize ISIS’s immoral activities. Still, the longer ISIS maintains control over these regions, the less it can be treated like an insurgent group still seeking legitimacy.

Harvard professor Stephen Walt seems to think we’ve passed the threshold at which the ISIS populations, upon freedom, could return to their previous governance structures. Thus, ISIS must be treated as a “‘revolutionary state-building organization’” that cannot be abolished through traditional military-first combat methods.[28]

A Radical Recommendation – Legitimization

With these analyses in mind, it seems clear that ISIS does not fit exactly within the strategic counter-parameters of a terrorist organization, a militant group, nor a counterinsurgency campaign. None of the Western coalition’s previous strategies have accounted for the moment that ISIS renders itself and its work “complete,” and begins to fully prioritize its self-creation as a legitimate, religiously governed Caliphate. Though this seems unlikely, any change of this sort could dramatically alter ISIS’s strategies and tactics, providing additional challenges to the West.

As mentioned before, there is a dangerous moment when Baghdadi becomes a revolutionary leader, rather than a violent terrorist, and an additional moment when the military destruction of the areas within the Caliphate will be regarded as an inhumane act of war, rather than a justified counter-response.

Thus, with these limitations in mind, I propose a rather radical recommendation that is inspired by American legal verbiage: “the law legitimates.” This instrumentalist saying suggests that law can be used to alter behavior – in this case, the behavior of Baghdadi and his Caliphate. Were the US to acknowledge Baghdadi’s Caliphate as legitimate, he could then be held accountable by both international norms and the specific language within sharia.

Following legitimization, the US could achieve one of three ends. Firstly, it could publicly expose the Caliphate as noncompliant within the religious jurisprudence of sharia, as could be reasonably expected from ISIS’s dissenting, violent actions made “on behalf” of this jurisprudence. Exposing Baghdadi as a hypocrite would prove extremely damaging to his legitimacy, which, as demonstrated above, he has clearly shown a deep commitment to, above any desires to expand the territory abroad or commit international terror acts.[29] Since he evidently values this legitimacy, rebranding him as a religious hypocrite could be damaging. Even acknowledging the plethora of ISIS foreign fighters and facilitators who don’t consider religion a crucial aspect of their involvement, this damage could prevent Baghdadi from gaining additional followers, and lower ISIS’s overall credibility. Although a number of religious voices have already attempted this method of discrediting ISIS, legitimization might stimulate more coherent and widespread critique.

On the contrary, the United States could also incite Baghdadi to actually follow these various regulations. Of course, ISIS has committed atrocities, and has declared time and time again that Western ideology is that of the infidels. Holding the group accountable to sharia, however, could achieve real promise, if our analyses regarding Baghdadi’s governance priorities are accurate. Even though the United States does not formally acknowledge sharia under international consideration or within its own borders, sharia language certainly professes more sustainable and replicable processes than ISIS’s hodgepodge of administrative tendencies. Any process is preferable to a lack of process, particularly within an international system that values stability and the capacity to hold parties accountable.

Thirdly, assuming that Baghdadi would refuse to be held accountable to either the regulations of international law or sharia, the United States could attain enormous credibility and support to mount a full-scale military operation against the regions in Iraq and Syria. As well, after deploying legislative rhetoric as a tool, the United States could gain military and economic support from additional states, newly convinced that a permanent, geographically tethered ISIS poses a greater threat than a loosely affiliated network of disenfranchised terrorists.


To clarify, I do not aim to diminish the atrocities that Baghdadi has implemented, nor do I suggest that the US should instantly abandon its military efforts against a true evil. I do posit, however, that a legitimate ISIS entity is easier to tear down than a disparate group of unpredictable nomad terrorists.

History shows us that counter-propaganda cannot convince devout followers or half-hearted followers, of the hypocrisy of ISIS’ religious claims. The US could, however, maneuver ISIS to reveal its hypocrisy more publicly. It’s a strategy inspired by the sentiments of journalism: “show, don’t tell.” If showing ISIS’s duplicity were to deter enough recruits, and subsequently demonstrate the operational infeasibility of Baghdadi ever conquering the Umayyad region, Baghdadi would face significant human resource challenges.

Of course, allowing ISIS to operate as a state actor in the global economy is an enormous risk. It’s obviously unlikely that ISIS would abide by any Western norms, even with the promise of economic, political and operational benefits.

I argue again, however, that ISIS values its Caliphate territory (and any global partnerships that might further stabilize that land) over inflicting terror. Although ISIS certainly has conducted its fair share of terrorist attacks, I argue that these occurred solely in the absence of significant territorial acquisitions, and must be viewed as ISIS’s secondary priority. The US has to acknowledge this prioritization, and use it to its advantage.

Nicole Softness is a graduate student at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York, studying International Security & Cyber Policy. Her research focuses on the intersection of counterterrorism and social media, succeeding an undergraduate thesis on al-Qaeda’s messaging strategies. She is currently the Research Assistant for Columbia’s Initiative on the Future of Cyber Risk.

* Source: Terri Moon Cronk, “Iraqis Fight for Western Mosul in Tough Battle Against ISIS,” U.S. Central Command, March 13, 2017,


[1] US Department of State, “Foreign Terrorist Organizations,”

[2] Zachary Laub, “The Islamic State,” Council on Foreign Relations, last updated August 10, 2016,

[3] Krishnadev Calamur, “ISIS: An Islamist Group Too Extreme Even For Al-Qaida,” NPR, June 13, 2014,

[4] For this hypothetical, the designation “self-maintained” presumes that a governing infrastructure could continue to exist, even if ISIS lowered such administrative duties within its list of priorities.

[5] Daniel L. Byman, “Comparing Al Qaeda and ISIS: Different goals, different targets,” Brookings, April 29, 2015,

[6] “5 Years Later: How Does Bin Laden’s Killing Impact Al-Qaida’s Legacy?” NPR, May 1, 2016,

[7] Charles Lister, “Al Qaeda Is About to Establish an Emirate in Northern Syria,” Foreign Policy, May 4, 2016,

[8] Harleen K. Gambhir, “Dabiq: The Strategic Messaging of the Islamic State,” Institute for the Study of War, August 15, 2014,

[9] Peter Mansoor, “Top Ten Origins: The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS),”,

[10] Jon B. Alterman, “ISIS (Re)Writes History,” Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), November 16, 2015,

[11] Ibid., 26.

[12] Graeme Wood, “What ISIS’s Leader Really Wants,” New Republic, September 1, 2014,

[13] William McCants, “The Believer: How an Introvert with a Passion for Religion and Soccer became Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Leader of the Islamic State,” Brookings, September 1, 2015,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Alissa J. Rubin, “Military Leader in Rare Appearance in Iraq,” The New York Times, July 5, 2014,

[16] James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 1998), 2.

[17] See, for example, Helene Cooper and Mujib Mashal, “U.S. Drops ‘Mother of All Bombs’ on ISIS in Afghanistan,” The New York Times, April 13, 2017,

[18] Scott, Seeing Like a State, 4-5.

[19] Adam Chodorow, “Even ISIS Needs to Collect Taxes,” Slate, December 7, 2015,

[20] Daniel Byman, “ISIS’ Big Mistake,” Foreign Affairs, November 15, 2015,

[21] Ibid.

[22] Paul D. Shinkman, “One Year Later: ISIS’ Caliphate and the Strength of its War in Iraq, Syria,” U.S. News, July 3, 2015,

[23] Stephen M. Walt, “What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?” Foreign Policy, June 10, 2015,

[24] Colin Jackson, “Government in a box? Counter-insurgency, State Building, and the Technocratic Conceit,” in The New Counter-Insurgency Era in Critical Perspective, ed. David Martin Jones, Celeste Ward Gventer, and M.L.R. Smith (London: Palgrave Macmillan UK, 2014), 82-110.

[25] Natasha Lander, “Deterring ISIS’s Ambitions,” RAND, March 7, 2016,

[26] See Institute for Economics and Peace, Global Terrorism Index 2015 (New York; Mexico City; The Hague: Institute for Economics and Peace, 2015), 1-107.

[27] Michael S. Schmidt, “U.S. to Send Military Advisers Closer to Front Lines of ISIS Fight in Iraq,” The New York Times, April 18, 2016,

[28] Tim Arango, “ISIS Transforming Into Functioning State That Uses Terror as a Tool,” The New York Times, July 21, 2015,

[29] McCants, “The Believer.”

Nicole A. Softness
Nicole A. Softness